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Thursday, 15 September 2011

I’m back at the red house, and it feels as if I’m back home, although even the north-east of England doesn’t get it this bad in mid-September: 43 degrees and raining steadily. I’ve had to fish out the moleskins, turn on the heating, and then dance a jig of joy: there are no bugs in here, nor at the windows, nor at the screen door.
I can’t speak too highly of the kindness and hospitality of my hosts in Ainsworth. Keevin and Dottie looked after me as if they’d known me all their lives, and sent me home with a box of home-grown tomatoes and pears. It was well worth going out there. I mentioned yesterday the tape that Aunt Astrid made in 1966. I was taken off-guard when Keevin played it, first thing in the morning; I was still busy trying to write the blog and wasn’t really listening, so later in the day I asked him to put it on again. It’s a rather ancient cassette tape, and I suggested – as others have done, he told me – that he ought to get it transcribed and backed up with a digital version. But he knows that.

The tape has corrected a few misunderstandings, although I’m still not a hundred per cent sure it answers all my questions about the history of this place. One thing that came up, which I don’t think I’d registered previously, is that Holger Arent, Keevin’s grandfather, was never 100% fit. He’d lost the use of a lung after a bout of pneumonia, so he probably did well to survive some twenty Sandhills winters and live to the age of 59. Astrid was the second of the eight children who were, with one exception, I believe,  born at two-yearly intervals. She came along in 1892, and would have had memories of the Omaha years, although on the tape she says next to nothing about those times other than referring to the fact that her father made furniture there for the family.

She came out with her mother and five siblings in 1901 and were met at Merriman by her brother Uncle Julius, who piled them onto his horse-drawn lumber wagon and took them south. Their father stayed in Omaha to try and rustle up some more cash. It took them two days, she said, to get to Grandma’s sodhouse, which was down on the Snake river, some way south of here. The place had two rooms, one serving as a kitchen-diner-living-space, the other used for sleeping. They stayed there for several months, during which time, as I understand her, Julius built a house on his own homestead. (I’m starting to wonder whether I ought to make a trip to the courthouse in Valentine and see whether I can sort this out from the land registry…) Grandma, Astrid says, had come out to keep house for Julius. Her other son Peter was homesteading nearby but was married. She returned at least twice to Denmark, even though she had staked her own claim. Astrid doesn’t say why, nor what the old lady’s circumstances were.

That the first winter was ‘rough’, but none of the family ever got ill, nor even had colds as far as Astrid remembers. If anyone did get sick locally, they would be looked after by Aunt Emilia, Peter’s wife, who had worked as a nurse in the old country. The family were getting all their water from the windmill that fed the cattle tank, so presumably that would have been clean, and for a toilet they used ‘the great outdoors’. They frequently had no shoes, just ‘moccasins’ made out of old overalls. They had some chickens, but lost several to a badger which Mother had to kill with a hand-axe. In summer they went barefoot and were always pulling prickly-pear spines out of their feet. They were out a lot. Julius had loaned them a pair of cows which in the summer took to the river-bank to brush off the flies on the undergrowth. The kids had to go down there to round them up, but couldn’t see above the tall reeds and willows.

The family lived on Grandma’s place for three years. Herman was born there in 1902. By that time five of the children were ready for school. Past ready. As Astrid remarked, they hadn’t seen a school nor a church in all the time they’d been out there. So they moved to Harlan (I think I’ve spelled that correctly) where there was a post office and a schoolhouse nearby. Home was a one-room sodhouse; one end served as kitchen-diner, the other end for sleeping. This had been the home of the Lyons family, Hester and Jim. I believe Hester was a sister to Pete and Julius, because she referred too ‘Uncle Jim’ loaning them a second horse and a wagon, which made life a lot easier. Astrid says that when the youngest was born – presumably Keevin’s father, Phillip – Aunt Hester took the other kids in for Christmas. She remembers her delight at the presents she received: pencils, paper, the first ribbons she’d ever had, and apples and popcorn, quite a thrill after their daily diet of potato and corn-mush.

After nine months, some time in 1904, they finally moved ten miles to their own homestead, here where I am staying. She spoke of the difficulties of crossing the river, and the steep hill they had to descend, and the climb up the other side. The river was shallow, but the current strong – and it would soon whisk you away if you weren’t careful. They saw their first car on that hill – pioneers heading for the Black Hills. Her father had to tow them up it with his team of horses, and the settlers ‘didn’t offer him a cent.’ It was many years, she said, before they could afford a Model T and enjoy pushing that up the hill.  Keevin told me that in later years, when they had a car, it was common practice to go up backwards. There was no fuel-pump, and the steep incline starved the engine of fuel if you tried it nose-first. He also said that in the deep sand they would let the air out of the tyres to get more traction. He himself remembers carrying a bicycle-pump in the back of his car.

Well, there is quite a bit more of this, but I need to study my notes and digest it – along with some porridge. I will add, though, that Keevin took me out to the cemetery where Otto, Anna and Phillip are buried.